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Solving the ocean plastic crisis: corporate action is essential, but more is needed

Industry leader SC Johnson believes plastic waste is the biggest environmental issue it must address as a company, but the global problem can only be solved with collective action

Solving the ocean plastic crisis: corporate action is essential, but more is needed
In September, SC Johnson hosted an immersive exhibition in London called the Blue Paradox to bring attention to ocean plastic pollution and sustainable solutions to protect our largest ecosystem.

As a long-time scuba diver and “adventurer at heart,” Fisk Johnson, the Chairman and CEO of SC Johnson, recalls the tipping point of his awareness of the ocean plastics crisis. On a dive in the seemingly pristine waters of the Darwin Islands with marine biologist Sylvia Earle, Johnson tested the waters for microplastics. In just a mere 10 gallons of seawater, they were shocked by what they discovered: “Hundreds of pieces [of plastic], ranging from blue and white fibers to perfectly spherical microbeads and plastic shards—you name it, it was in there.”

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Johnson has since dived in locations that were teeming with plastic waste, but that discovery in the Galapagos stands out. “It’s scary because I don’t think anybody really understands the impact all of this has on the health of our ocean ecosystems,” he says. “It really drives home the importance of the issue.” In fact, estimates gauge that, if left unchecked, by 2050 there will be more plastics in the oceans by weight than fish. Or that people might already be ingesting a credit-card-sized amount of microplastics every week through food, water, or even air.

For the head of a fifth-generation, family-owned company that uses plastic in its packaging, reducing ocean plastics pollution poses unique challenges given its breadth and complexity. Businesses as a whole have to come together,” he says. “We need better and greater regulation. And more sustainable behavior on the part of consumers is critical. That’s what makes it tough: It takes all of those things coming together. One company cannot go it alone.”

A SOCIAL PLASTIC ECOSYSTEM

Pathways to solutions are beginning to emerge, particularly through entrepreneurship and innovative thinking within the private sector. “We are constantly looking for ways to reduce the amount of plastic in our products and reuse our plastic packaging,” Johnson says. This includes launching refill stations at retailers where bottles can be reused, increasing the post-consumer recycled content in products, and finding new ways to make their products more recyclable.

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We are constantly looking for ways to reduce the amount of plastic in our products and reuse our plastic packaging.”

Fisk Johnson; CEO, SC Johnson
Then there are synergistic ideas either plucked from the ether or that land on their doorstep, given the company’s reputation for leadership on the issue. SC Johnson is building unique sustainability partnerships with professional sports teams, including the Milwaukee Brewers and Bucks and the English Premier League’s Liverpool Football Club, whereby plastic stadium waste (read: cups) is upcycled into new product packaging. (The cups read: “This will be recycled into a Scrubbing Bubbles bottle. Put it in the recycle bin”.) “The Brewers approached us knowing our interest in this issue,” Johnson says. “And we are constantly inspired by things that we see on the outside.”

Like the time the company spotted a product launch in the Netherlands that indicated it was packaged in ocean plastic. “I thought, ‘Wow, what a great idea.’ And we jumped on that and expanded that around the world into our partnership with Plastic Bank.” That partnership focuses on collecting ocean-bound plastic and putting them into a closed-loop system where they can be recycled and transformed into packaging for Windex. At its core is a micro-enterprise model that fosters what may be the way forward: the creation of a social plastic ecosystem.

“We like the Plastic Bank model because it provides an economic incentive to collectors and it puts a structure around that incentive,” explains Alan VanderMolen, Senior Vice President and Chief Communications Officer for SC Johnson. Collectors get paid in digital currency through transparent pricing on their mobile devices. “The model really works and is absolutely sustainable because we’re giving economic independence to people at the base of the pyramid.”

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Plastic Bank’s social plastic ecosystem has already prevented the equivalent of more than 1 billion plastic bottles from entering the world’s oceans, with SC Johnson’s partnership accounting for more than half of that. Alliances with industry organizations and NGOs help to tackle the crisis in sustainable ways: In 2019, SC Johnson became the 10th global partner of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and is active in its New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, which envisions “a circular economy for plastics, in which it never becomes waste.” Johnson is also on the board of the Consumer Goods Forum, where CEOs representing the world’s largest retailers and packaged-goods companies collaborate to secure consumer trust and drive positive change. “There’s a lot of good things going on right now and I see a lot of momentum happening around the world,” he says. “That gives me hope.”

TOWARD A CLOSED-LOOP RECYCLING INFRASTRUCTURE

Perhaps nothing is more vital to overcoming the plastic pollution problem than creating scalable, closed-loop recycling infrastructure. And as municipalities re-examine the cost benefits of community recycling, this requires fresh revenue and the determination of who can best bear that cost. Here, Johnson is blunt: “This issue is never going to be solved without better regulation. We’re a particular advocate for Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR).”

The Plastic Bank model really works and is sustainable because we’re giving economic independence to people at the base of the pyramid.”

Alan VanderMolen; SVP, SC Johnson
EPR amounts to combining all of the environmental costs of a product and its packaging (including “take back,” recycling, and final disposal) into its market price, with that premium being largely borne by the producer. The hope is that this added cost to the producers—and related revenue to municipalities that will be saving exorbitant recycling fees—will inspire and fuel technical innovations in both packaging and community recycling. That is, as long as the effort doesn’t spike product prices and municipalities don’t spend these new revenues elsewhere. Johnson emphasizes the importance of producers taking responsibility for how all this works: “A plain old plastic tax doesn’t cut it in my view.”

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One regulation that Johnson has no qualms about: Straw laws, but not necessarily for the reason one might expect. “Honestly, those laws really only address a drop in the bucket in terms of waste,” he says. “But I really like them because they bring a lot of public attention to the issue. And we need that.”

AWARENESS MATTERS

Simply stated, awareness drives behavior, and Johnson cites a couple examples to back that up: SC Johnson launched a concentrate refill for its trigger spray bottles roughly 12 years ago. “It’s a great way to save on plastic waste,” Johnson says, noting that refills use 80% less plastic than the trigger bottle, while acknowledging “we could never get any traction with that product, largely because people were not aware of the waste issue. It just wasn’t top of mind for them.”

That was one of the reasons SC Johnson recently created an immersive, highly visual educational experience (and panel discussion) in London called the Blue Paradox. In partnership with Conservation International, the company sought to bring people together over the course of 13 days to explore the role plastic currently plays in society, alternative sustainable options to eliminate unnecessary waste, and the small changes we all can make to protect the largest ecosystem on our planet.

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Similar to Johnson’s experience in the Darwin Islands, seeing was suddenly believing. “As I talked to people on their way out of the exhibit,” Johnson recalls, “most said that they didn’t realize the extent of the issue and that they were now ready to make changes in their life to help. And that was our goal.”

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